Mike Kueber's Blog

November 14, 2012

Sarcasm v. ad hominem arguments

Filed under: Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 3:26 am
Tags: , ,


A few days ago, I engaged in a discussion on Cary Clack’s Facebook wall concerning his following post about radicals, both political and religious:

  • I embrace the name “liberal” with pride and don’t allow anyone, liberals included, to define it for me. Liberalism is a great, noble and flawed political philosophy that has done much good. Conservatism is a great, noble and flawed political philosophy that has done much good. At their essence, both are inspired by inherently moral impulses. Like religions, often it’s their true believers who give them a bad name.

When one of Clack’s friends expressed his disgust with “crazies who proclaim divine concurrence,” I sarcastically said that this person must not have a personal relationship with Jesus.  I subsequently explained that individuals who have a personal relationship with Jesus and aren’t spoon-fed their religion by hierarchical religions are likely to come across as eccentric or crazy.  Cary responded that, “It was your blog referencing me (thanks for the warning bro) that led to this post. I was going to give special attention to your blog tomorrow, but based on your comments- O Infallible One- it may be a waste of time. Peace.”

Subsequently, a couple of commentators called me “smarty pants” and “not brilliant after all,” so Clack interjected, “But let me jump in and say I don’t want to see any ad hominem attacks on Michael here.” 

Huh?  Clack calls me “O Infallible One,” but someone else is out-on-line to call me smarty pants?  I called Clack on it and suggested, “There’s a fine line between ad hominem and sarcasm, O Infallible One. In fact, my initial comment to Paul contained a tinge of sarcasm.”

Clack responded with, “I don’t think it’s so fine a line. My sarcasm has always come through in my writing but not even those who disagree with me have ever accused me of making ad hominem attacks on people.”

I countered: “Cary, so it is clear to you that calling someone ‘O Infallible One’ is not an ad hominem? We will have to agree to disagree because I consider it to be an attack on one’s character.

The exchanged ended when a third party (a St. Mary’s law grad) interjected: “Seriously Michael? A character attack? Grow some nuts guy!”  I’m sure St. Mary’s Law School is proud of him.

Instead of engaging the St. Mary’s guy, I decided to let the dispute go.  But I felt a new awareness of the fine line between sarcasm and an ad hominem argument:

  • Sarcasm – the use of irony to mock or convey contempt. 
  • Ad hominem argument – an argument made personally against an opponent (especially his character) instead of against the opponent’s argument.

This new awareness, however, does little good if I don’t put it into practice.  Today, I got into an argument on a Facebook friend’s wall over the TEA Party.  With my second entry I said the following:

  • The anointed one said in his State of the Union speech, “I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.” The Democrats and the TEA Party (Taxed Enough Already) Republicans have a good-faith disagreement over how little people can do for themselves and how much government needs to do.

I thought my entry was an attempt to find common ground, but instead of seeing this as a kumbaya moment, my friend jumped on my use of “the anointed one:”

  • Middleton: Don’t forget that who you sarcastically refer to as “the anointed one” is still the President of the United States, and I know what TEA Party is supposed to mean, so no need to explain.
  • Kueber: Phil, there is nothing inappropriate with using sarcasm to describe the president of the united states, is there? And I wasn’t insulting your intelligence by suggesting you didn’t know what TEA meant; rather, I was emphasizing the elegant simplicity of the movement’s principles.
  • Middleton: Mike, I affirm your right to be sarcastic, if you wish, but that is beneath you, as a person of reason and intelligence. In this case, it comes across more as an ad hominem tactic, which unnecessarily distracts from the discussion. I think if the TEA baggers (see how unnecessary that is?) were simply focused on taxes as you say, you might be right. But their agenda seems to be much broader and more vicious.
  • Kueber:  Point well taken. I recently got into a discussion with Cary Clack and he called me Oh Infallible One. When I suggested that his name-calling was an Ad Hominem, he responded that it was mere sarcasm, for which he had a reputation he was proud of. I told him there was a fine line between sarcasm and ad hominems. My sarcasm, however, wasn’t as bad as his because mine was directed at a third party (Obama and the media), not you. And my sarcasm wasn’t as bad as yours because mine was substantive (Obama has been treated as the Savior by the media), whereas yours about tea-baggers is merely tossing out Fighting Words. But ultimately, you are correct that calling Obama the anointed one might draw emotion into the discussion. I take it back.

This “Anointed One” is a perfect example of saying something that I consider akin to gentle teasing is often not considered teasing when you are on the receiving end of it, “O Infallible One.”  So, the lesson is to go ahead with sarcasm if you are trying to irritate the recipient or impress a listener with your wit, but stay away from it if you want to have an honest exchange of views.


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